• PAIRS: Because great relationships don't happen by accident.
  • PAIRS Essentials in Fort Lauderdale June 25-26, 2016.
  • PAIRS: Because great relationships don't happen by accident.
  • PAIRS: Because great relationships don't happen by accident.
  • PAIRS.
  • PAIRS: Because great relationships don't happen by accident.
  • PAIRS: Because great relationships don't happen by accident.

The Mission of PAIRS is to teach those attitudes, emotional understandings and behaviors that nurture and sustain healthy relationships and to make this knowledge broadly available on behalf of a safer, saner, more loving world.

Learning to Be a Great Listener with Shared Meaning

Half of any communication depends on how the sender/speaker gets in touch with and conveys all of the information (perceptions, feelings, expectations, needs) that might be relevant to a given exchange. But it takes two to communicate. Both people share equal responsibility for ensuring clear messages get sent and received.

Conversations are rarely uninterrupted monologues -- especially if the issue is a significant one for both people.

Conversations that matter are often lively, if not heated, dialogues.

And they should be.

The process of risking, sharing and learning is exciting and demanding. But that doesn't mean dialogues need to be competitive, one-way exchanges. To the extent real information is exchanged, considered, and helps strengthen the relationship or improve the situation, both parties "win". In love relationships, when that doesn't happen, everyone loses.

So both must genuinely want to receive and give information -- and both must do all in their power, by their manner, tone, expressions, gestures and words to help accurately exchange honest messages. They must truly want to know what the other is experiencing, feeling and needing. If they do truly want to know, this will inevitably be reflected in their manner -- in their concern for the other, in the respect with which they attend to what the other has to say, in the way their responses reflect that they have heard and have taken what they've heard into account, in the way that they use both their own and their partner's words as tools rather than as weapons, in the way that they respect whatever "differences" emerge rather than being offended or frightened by them -- in short, in all the ways they reflect their basic esteem for and trust in both themselves and their partner. Fortunately, there is one reasonably simple technique for accomplishing all of this, and that is through Shared Meaning, also known as "Empathic Listening."

We seldom really "listen" to another person except for quite egocentric reasons: we listen to that which is of practical use to us (a great sale, new restaurant, entertaining movie); we listen to that which embellishes our own interests or skills (a lecture or a new recipe); we listen for that which flatters our self-esteem (agrees with our own views); and we listen for plausible opportunities to jump back into the conversation to offer our own opinions. This is normal; in fact, humankind might not have survived if we hadn't been so thoroughly egocentric. But it doesn't promote the kind of "empathic" listening that helps you fully appreciate and understand what the words mean to the speaker -- as opposed to the more self-centered value they might have for you.

That kind of listening requires focusing on the speaker with an intensity that excludes virtually all other distractions, being aware of the speaker's mind and heart as well as words. It means putting yourself in the other person's shoes so thoroughly that you:

  • grasp why the topic is important to the speaker
  • feel why the speaker chooses each particular word
  • imagine how the speaker feels in that situation, that mood, and that chair
  • picture what you look like to the speaker, what signals the speaker is picking up from you.

In this way, you begin to get an appreciation of how what is being said relates to what is going on inside the person speaking.

We all have the capacity to listen in this way, but until we've practiced it for a while it can take considerable effort. The results are more than worth it because:

  • You not only hear more but, because you're attending to all of the cues and signals, your understanding is infinitely more accurate.
  • The fact that you are making the effort, are truly listening, is shown in a thousand subtle ways that you couldn't possibly program or fake. The tone and pitch of each "uh-huh," the timing and nuance of each nod, smile, or raised eyebrow, the precise wording of each question or comment, tell the speaker that you're really grappling with their meaning and feelings.
  • Since there is nothing rarer or more flattering than really being listened to, the speaker can't resist the need to be more responsible and honest in formulating and expressing their thoughts, and
  • Since it feels so good to be listened to, the speaker is far more likely to return the favor when it is your turn to speak.

True conversation is a partnership, an orchestration -- not a competition. Pitted against an expert non-listener, an articulate speaker becomes dull. An ordinarily inarticulate person, when stimulated, encouraged and reinforced by a true listener, can discover new depths of feeling and expressiveness.

Intimacy cannot grow without this kind of communication. And this kind of communication must be a mutual effort: while one is taking risks by confiding their innnermost thoughts and feelings, the other is showing genuine respect for the speaker and the process by listening with the greatest intensity possible. In so doing, both are showing, and not merely professing, their trust and respect for each other -- and as both get in tune with each other's subtleties and complexities of meaning, they avoid making the common mistakes of assuming they know what the other is thinking, means or wants and of attributing to the other person their own beliefs and feelings. They both acquire the ability to recognize, appreciate and deal objectively with the differences that exist between them. From there, they can learn how to make these differences occasions for mutual growth, celebration and pride rather than divisiveness and fear.

For one consequence of genuine communication, of course, is that each part gets in touch with the "reality" rather than the polite fiction of the other. And since no two people are going to have precisely the same wants, needs, values and beliefs, certain differences make conflict possible. Most of the differences can be resolved by adjustments and compromise; some may call for mature recognition of the fact that, in a particular area, each can pursue different ends without harming the relationship. A few may not permit either ready compromise or separate paths -- those may be more appropriately dealt with using the fair fight and behavioral contracting techniques. But first, let's focus on the process of clear and congruent communication.

Try a PAIRS exercise to improve your communication skills.


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